05/27/2010 01:12 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

In Election Years, Food Is Fodder

Republicans will employ a variety of strategies this fall as they campaign to regain control of Congress. If history is any guide, they may find themselves using the language of lunch and the dialect of dinner. Indeed, for more than a century, food has provided candidates with a handy prop to mock adversaries and clarify positions.

In the 1984 Democratic presidential primaries, Senator Gary Hart mounted a tough challenge to frontrunner Walter Mondale by trumpeting "new ideas." But Mondale regained the momentum during a debate by borrowing the words from a fast-food commercial to challenge the substance behind Hart's message. "When I hear about your new ideas," the former vice president told Hart, "I'm reminded of the ad 'Where's the beef?' "

The year before he launched his re-election bid, President George H.W. Bush insisted his requests of the Democratic majority in Congress had been reasonable. "I wasn't asking the Congress to deliver a hot pizza in less than 30 minutes," he quipped.

For a congressman who faces re-election this year, Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) chose cavalier, sugar-coated words to describe the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. After observing the oil slick from a plane, Taylor said it looked like "chocolate milk" and appeared to be "breaking up naturally."

In some campaigns, food is not just a metaphor -- it's part of the pitch. As Mike Montandon campaigned in Nevada for this year's Republican gubernatorial nomination, his wife, Antoinette, offered a tasty testimonial to his character. "He is always so complimentary of whatever I cook and he eats it," she gushed.

The last Republican mayor of Chicago, "Big Bill" Thompson, attacked a rival candidate in the 1920s for being a sloppy eater who dined with "eggs in his whiskers, soup on his vest."

In 1912, Woodrow Wilson's austere eating habits scored a public relations coup. His two leading presidential foes, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, were known for enjoying lavish meals. During the campaign, Wilson strolled into New York City's Penn Station, where, reported the New York Times, "Democracy's candidate" bypassed "the well-appointed dining room to his right," took a seat at a lunch counter and consumed a bare-bones dinner: a sandwich and a glass of buttermilk.

Today, political pundits and reporters still pay attention to what's on the menu. In April, The Boston Globe informed readers that Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick kicked off his re-election bid by eating breakfast at the Owl Diner in the town of Lowell. The governor, the newspaper noted, "narrowly escaped a dousing of eggs when a waitress trying to push through the media dropped a loaded tray."

Can body fat remind voters of budgetary fat? At least some incumbents this year don't seem interested in learning the answer to that question. In New York, state Assemblyman Joseph S. Saladino stopped eating manicotti. One of his Assembly colleagues, Sam Hoyt, offered this explanation for his diet: "When my constituents tell me to trim the fat, I want to make sure they mean the budget, and not me."

It never hurts to throw some meat to the voters. In 1928, Republican backers of Herbert Hoover promised Americans "a chicken in every pot." While running in 1970 to become Georgia's next governor, Jimmy Carter -- a passionate racing fan -- promised to hold a barbecue for the NASCAR community at the governor's mansion if he won. He kept that promise. In 1978, he hosted another NASCAR cookout at a tonier address: the White House.